I just ran across local newspaper science columnist Faye Flam’s old article (PDF) about speculation around, let’s say marital relations, in the afterlife.  She does remind us that the Lord Himself reported that in Heaven the saved do not marry [and therefore do not have sexual relations], but live as the angels.  (In fact Orthodox Monasticism is often referred to as angelic life, or anticipation thereof, both in pious expressions and in hymns on monastic Saints’ feast days.)  Angels don’t “do it” because they lack a fundamental requirement: bodies!*  We even call them “the Bodiless Powers.”

Flam also reported a non-Christian insight more relevant than she realized: “Zoroastrians, he said, believed there was sex in heaven but people would wean themselves away from both food and sex as they got used to being dead.”  I point this out because the Orthodox Way includes not denial that we are embodied human beings, since we are not dualists like the Zoroastrians (ancient “gnostics” still around today), but seeking to repent of and purify ourselves of any sinfulness (including that related to sexuality and food, though not of sexuality or eating itself) and seeking healing of our domination by our passions (including the sexual and gluttonous).  Mainstream Orthodoxy never considered “intercourse for pleasure … ‘depravity'” as the Western Christian mainstream Flam discusses did.  In fact, the ancient Fathers of the Church recognized the unitive and agape-building, relationship-building qualities of marital relations so much that it is from them that Christianity has its tradition of allowing them (if grudgingly in the West medievally) during infertile times such as pregnancy and menopause, vs. the still-heard Western idea that reproduction is the overriding point of human, Christian sexuality, and anything else mere condescension to human drives.  Nevertheless, the Orthodox Way, especially Monasticism, is also sometimes referred to as “dying to the world,” not entirely unlike what the Zoroastrians say about ‘dying to sexuality and gluttony’ after death.

But fear not!  Since Orthodoxy retains the doctrine that Heaven isn’t merely some kind of ‘earthly life on steroids,’ but advancing ever deeper into the Glory of God as Uncreated Light (as well as glorious fellowship – communion, koinonia – with the other saints, such as those we commemorated this past Sunday, All Saints Day, both those recognized by the official Church and the overwhelming majority not) and God-like-ness, we won’t miss sex!  Although to get there we do need to collaborate (synergeia, synergy) with God purifying us of our exaggerated attachment to it in the first place, here on earth….  Fr. John Romanides was fond of castigating the West’s attachment to “happiness” as fundamentally opposed to Orthodox Glorification / Salvation.  What do I know?  But perhaps another way of seeing it is that we need to find our happiness in God today, or else we’ll really hate spending eternity with Him.**

What about the Orthodox Mystery (sacrament) of Holy Matrimony?  Theologically it isn’t a ‘license to screw’ if you’ll pardon the expression, but just like its counterpart, Monasticism, a form of discipling to use a popular Evangelical word.  IIUC, the Orthodox discipline (or as I like to think of it, disciplin’) of fasting Traditionally includes married couples abstaining from relations, ie, most Wednesdays and Fridays, during Lent, the Apostles’ Fast (going on right now), the Transfiguration / Dormition Fast (in August), the Nativity Fast, the couple other fast-days on the calendar, and also on days before receiving Communion.  (This may or may not be a complete list.)  IIUC, part of the idea is that Orthodox marriage partners help each other with this discipline / disciplin’, since theologically they marry to help each other get saved.  In Orthodox fellowship / communion / koinonia with each other, they’re not to struggle in individual isolation, but to share each other’s burdens and build up each other’s gifts.  (This may have something to do with the ancient preference that Orthodox only marry other Orthodox, not non-Christians or even Heterodox Christians, though today marrying Heterodox Christians of certain denominations is tolerated alot, and of course we were never required to separate from non-Orthodox spouses when ourselves converting to Orthodoxy, since the Holy Apostle Paul counseled that we might help save our spouse.)

(*–With apologies to Fr. Andrew Greeley, who delights in the medieval Western speculation around what exactly the angels do have, for bodies!)

(**–I believe the latter clause comes from Fr. Anthony Coniaris in a basic intro to Orthodoxy of his, but I’m not certain.)

  1. “Fr. John Romanides was fond of castigating the West’s attachment to “happiness” as fundamentally opposed to Orthodox Glorification / Salvation.”

    Could you expand a little more on this – or maybe point me towards a source where Fr. John does this? Thanks.

  2. Where’d you get this, I wonder? It seems to me that in much of mainstream Orthodoxy (say, HERE from the OCA), contraception is strongly discouraged precisely because “sex is for babies.” Yes, of course, there are unitive qualities to sex in addition to the procreative ones, and of course we cannot say that all sexual activity outside of the bounds of procreative ability is “mere condescension to human drives.”

    In spite of this, however, I would say that, in Orthodoxy as well as Catholicism and all classical Christian confessions, reproduction is indeed the overriding point of human, Christian sexuality.

  3. Leo Peter O'Filon

    Welcome, gentlemen, and sorry for my delay, it was unavoidable.

    Joshua, great pictures of fall coming to South Canaan, PA! I haven’t made it up there since Feb. 2006, sadly. The Monastery grounds in high foliage almost made autumn bearable for me with my S.A.D.! Probably the best place for Romanides on Happiness is here, his first two essays listed there, “United to Modern Technology…” and “The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion.” The first is a little bit expanded version of the second, but you might find it useful to see both. Here’s where it gets tricky: the purported link to the HTML version of “United” redirects to “The Cure,” ie, the older, non-expanded version of the essay — “United” isn’t there, just a link to “Cure’s” URL for the benefit of browsers that don’t redirect. If you want to, you need to view “United” in one of the alternative formats given here — Winword, Word for Mac, or RTF. (I just discovered this reality myself, so I have to go and read “United” for the first time!!!)

    David, for the benefit of readers I’ll bring over The OCA’s quotes (their Fr. John Matusiak) from your link:

    What about such very specific issues as divorce and birth control and abortion? What do you have to say about such things?

    These important issues all bear upon the appreciation of the family, and generally we can say without hesitation that the Orthodox understand the family to be willed by God as a created expression of His own uncreated life. Thus, in principle, the family must be preserved and glorified as something divinely and eternally valuable.
    The control of the conception of a child by any means is also condemned by the Church if it means the lack of fulfillment in the family, the hatred of children, the fear of responsibility, the desire for sexual pleasure as purely fleshly, lustful satisfaction, etc.

    Again, however, married people practicing birth control are not necessarily deprived of Holy Communion, if in conscience before God and with the blessing of their spiritual father, they are convinced that their motives are not entirely unworthy. Here again, however, such a couple cannot pretend to justify themselves in the light of the absolute perfection of the Kingdom of God.

    What Fr. John is discussing here, if I may, is the Eastern Christian concept of Economy (Gr. oikonomia), ie, allowing what isn’t allowed, for the sake of saving the souls involved, in normally a very difficult situation. For example, this is why Orthodox might remarry up to twice more in the Church (total = 3) after divorce or widowhood, whereas the Latin Church doesn’t feel able to allow remarriage after divorce (only widowhood) even though the Lord did. In that case, as Fr. John says, remarriage is “frowned upon” but may be permitted (by the Ruling Hierarch, I believe), with repentance and what Catholics call “a firm purpose of amendment,” as well as, ideally, a much lower-key Marriage Rite, not as celebratory as the normal one.

    In the case of artificial contraception, what Father is alluding to – and this may vary by jurisdiction or ethnic tradition – is cases of extreme hardship perceived by the couple, with the counsel of their spiritual parent, should they foresee the possibility of more children at that time. Even St. Paul counseled couples not to abstain from marital relations excessively long, lest they be tempted to sin. The main point of the Orthodox Mystery of Holy Matrimony is Salvation; intercourse, parenthood, etc., are secondary to the couple’s being “suitable helpers” to each other along the Orthodox Way. In fact one hears about rare Orthodox married couples who have never been sexually intimate, but partner with each other toward Salvation anyway. (I don’t comprehend it, I just report the rumor!) In the West they don’t have a marriage without “consummating” it sexually, but in Orthodoxy the marriage is accomplished by the rites in church, not the sex afterward. For Latinism marriage is canonically a contract, and the ministers of the sacrament, the couple themselves, “witnessed” by the priest, deacon, or bishop, and those in attendance, and under the contract traditionally either partner has the right to the other’s body, and if the conditions of the contract were not fulfilled at the outset, it’s null and void, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding (except they still legitimize the children). For Orthodoxy marriage is a “mystery,” administered by the priest or bishop just like all the other Mysteries of the Church (Baptism, Confession, Communion, Holy Orders, Anointing, etc.), and others present partake in the celebrating of the Mystery liturgically as the laos, God’s Populace, saying the Amens and Lord Have Mercys to the prayers, and as I’ve said, all else is secondary, though part of it. The approach is significantly different. While Orthodox marriage evokes martyrdom in the prayers and the crowns given to the couple, much of Orthodoxy today also allows them not to feel pushed to the extreme against their will or genuine conscience.

    I might dare say that Orthodox Holy Tradition lacks a sense of what we today call sexuality, apart from the Orthodox Mystery of Holy Matrimony (or sexual sin), and so the ‘sacramental’ and salvific concerns would be paramount by definition. Except I haven’t read widely enough about it yet to make such a sweeping statement more than tentatively or heuristically.

    This is all very sensitive, pastoral stuff, and I’m probably not doing a good job at it. I’m still single, not a spiritual parent myself, nor a priest, nor a monk.

    However, my own history considering this question for many years as a Latin and now as Orthodox…. I was first apprised of the Patristic position as I have tried to characterize it by a little paperback by a ‘liberal‘ Latin religious sister in a Catholic book shop in South Bend, Indiana, in the mid ’90s. She didn’t include footnotes, just a wisecrack, “I wonder how that ancient doctrine got shuffled to the bottom of the deck?” I don’t remember the title or author anymore; I didn’t even buy the book, I couldn’t spare the money.

  4. AR

    If I can wax hermaneutical for a moment without betraying my evangelical roots too much…

    In Genesis God said that a man and his wife would become “one flesh” “for this reason” – i.e. because the woman had been taken from the man in the first place. We know that becoming “one flesh” refers to sexual intercourse at least, because St. Paul quotes the expression in exactly that way when talking about abstaining from the use of prostitutes.

    So, it seems unlikely to me that any explanation of the act of marriage that subjects this mystical origin or “reason” to its end result could be truly Orthodox. Orthodox Christianity, after all, is the most mystical form of Christianity out here, which is why I’m banging on the church doors so hard.

    On the other hand what we can’t forget is that having children is also mystical.

    So the “unitive” (Good Grass, what an ugly modern word!) properties of “marital relations” (and what another!) can hardly be said to be “in addition” to the “reproductive function” – (again – don’t we mean childbirth?) as the latter is just that – later. Unless, of course, the result supersedes the “reason” which seems unlikely. One normally flows into the other but we can’t forget which one comes first.

    Good article, Leo.

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